WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Less than a year after coming to power in the "Orange Revolution" and making Ukraine the envy of people in less democratic former Soviet regimes President Viktor Yushchenko has sacked key political supporters amid accusations of graft and corruption. Thursday he fired Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who had been his champion in the non-violent winter revolution. Earlier, he had accepted the resignation of Petro Poroshenko, another close ally whom he had appointed head of the Security and Defense Council.
Rumors of corruption in the government had been circulating for months, causing widespread public disappointment. One of Yushchenko's main election promises had been that he would end the corrupt habits that had flourished under his autocratic, pro-Moscow predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma. Things came to a head last week when the senior official in the presidency, Oleksander Zintchenko, resigned from his post charging government members, and Poroshenko in particular, of corruption.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians had braved snowstorms and possible clashes with security forces last winter to demonstrate in support of a second election following Yushchenko's defeat in the first fraudulent one. In the second go around Yushchenko handily defeated Viktor Yankovych, Kuchma's anointed successor.
Tymoshenko's impassioned eloquence had been crucial in helping Yushchenko -- his features ravaged by poison from a failed assassination attempt -- become the country's first freely elected president. It was her speeches that brought the people out into the street in last December's protests, and she has been called the Ukrainian "La Pasionaria," after Dolores Ibarruri, the fiery communist leader in the Spanish Civil War. Tymoshenko is no communist, however, and her attitude towards the current Moscow leadership has been described as "robust." Now 44, she had made a fortune in the oil industry in the Kuchma regime, when corruption was a prerequisite of doing business successfully, and old habits die hard, some Western analysts were saying Thursday.
But when he appeared on television to explain his decision Yushchenko said the accusations of corruption against her government were "groundless but very strong" and there would be an investigation. "The key issue was the issue of trust. If it had been possible to preserve the team spirit, to remain together, it would have been the best answer," he said.
In his broadcast Yushchenko also hinted at infighting among leading members of his administration, the same people who had held hands in the mass demonstrations. "I knew that there were definite contradictions between those people, "he said, "but I hoped that there would not be enough time for intrigues. Those were my hopes."
When the president did not say was that differences had emerged between himself and his glamorous prime minister, particularly over management of the Ukrainian economy. Yushchenko, who is lobbying hard for Ukraine to enter the European Union is said to favor a free economy, his prime minister a more controlled one.
But perhaps the fundamental reason is that the highly popular Tymoshenko, who has a reputation for being determined and overbearing in pursuing her objectives looks increasingly like a threat to Yushchenko, and is said to have presidential ambitions of her own. Stories of a rift in their relationship began to surface in the summer.
Yushchenko has appointed an acting prime minister, Yuriy Yekhanurov, a former economics minister who is now chairman of the parliamentary committee on industry, with instructions to bring discipline to Ukraine's economic policy. But to restore sagging public confidence, and to reassure his supporters in Washington and Brussels, Yushchenko needs to show that he has control of the situation.
So far, the West has had reason to be disappointed with Ukraine's regime change. U.S. officials have been quoted as saying they hoped Yushchenko would get his administration back on track quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, couldn't resist saying "I told you so" earlier this week when he received a group of experts on Russian affairs and journalists from several Western countries. He had warned Europe that this would happen, he said, "but no one wanted to listen to us -- and we have to be listened to."
Yushchenko's triumph -- with Western backing -- had been a blow to Putin's prestige. He had visited Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on two occasions during the election campaign to demonstrate the Kremlin's support.
Meanwhile, the sacked prime minister is unlikely to go quietly. Through a spokesperson she said Thursday that she would let the president have his say first, and will respond on Ukrainian television on Friday. Analysts said that unless the two can patch up their differences the Orange Revolution will have really soured.